The Big Movie: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (R)
This year, Santa's brought all the good little girls and boys who love movies a very special treat - an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's delicious Grand Guignol operetta 'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,' directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp.
Oh, it could have been a disaster. Remember Burton's 'Planet of the Apes'?
But Burton's version of the deliriously dark tale of murder and meat pies is a near-perfect piece of cinema, truncating the three-act musical while still celebrating its essence.
It's a film that works in every way as a movie, all on its own, never giving the audience that uncomfortable 'this was really meant to be a play' feeling, and that's exceedingly rare.
That said, those new to 'Sweeney Todd' may be shocked at the sheer volume of blood that's splattered across the screen. At a recent preview screening, a number of teenage Depp fans were unsettled by their idol's gleeful slitting of throats - they giggled nervously and gasped aloud.
Sondheim's 1979 musical, based on a fictional Victorian character who first appeared in a 'penny dreadful' serial called 'The String of Pearls: A Romance,' focuses on a revenge-bent barber who slices the throats of his customers, then sends them off to be baked into pies by his partner in crime, Mrs. Lovett.
A lighthearted romance, this ain't.
It's also not a literal adaptation of Sondheim's production, the most famous staging of which starred Len Cariou as the razor-happy barber and Angela Lansbury as the blowzy, sinister pie maker.
Here, we have Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett, with makeup that plays up her natural pallor and her deep, sunken eyes, alongside Depp's Sweeney. With Burton's gloriously gloomy art direction, the pair make for precisely the Sondheim-goes-goth experience that Burton fans have been anticipating.
As for the hard-core Sondheim fans, well, they may grumble a bit. The original work has been sliced and diced to turn it into a workable movie, with some songs getting the ax and a reworking of the secondary characters. But the end result is so glorious that they shouldn't really be upset.
Depp is stunningly good as Sweeney, revealing himself to be a strong, emotive singer, and playing the role with all the heartfelt conviction that went missing from his work in the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' sequels.
Bonham Carter makes up for what she lacks in musical strength by bringing layers of complexity to Mrs. Lovett that are completely original to the film, and her performance is funny, touching and tragic.
Villainy and comic relief are provided by Alan Rickman as the creepy Judge Turpin, who defiled Sweeney's wife and plans on doing the same to his young daughter, and Sacha Baron Cohen as a barber-slash-con artist who competes with, and then blackmails, Sweeney.
Both actors make the most of their smaller roles, proving that they weren't cast simply for their star power, but because they're absolutely dead-perfect in the parts.
In fact, there's pretty much nothing bad to be said about 'Sweeney Todd.' It's beautifully shot, deftly directed, marvelously acted, and utterly magnificent to behold.
It's one of the very best films of the year - and one of the very best films in Tim Burton and Johnny Depp's respective filmographies.
- Dawn Taylor
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